Megachurch Pastor Jonathan Pokluda made a splash on Twitter when a three-minute clip of his Jan. 22 sermon went viral. He narrated how, early in his marriage, he ventured to a restaurant with a friend for chips and queso when a woman with a “perfect body,” where “everything was in the right place,” propositioned him by asking if she could buy him a drink.
Pokluda, now pastor of Harris Creek Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, explained he was married. She replied “Is she here? Because I don’t care.” He then dramatically recounted how his saving grace, the only way he managed to resist the temptation of a few minutes of “ecstasy” with a complete stranger, was that he remembered Proverbs 5.
Outrage and derision
Christian social media erupted in outrage at his objectification of women’s bodies, as well as derision at the idea the story unfolded as he said. Many posited a more plausible explanation of the encounter was a server asked him if she could get him a drink; he misunderstood and replied he was married; and she was confused, since no woman was with him.
But let’s give Pokluda the benefit of the doubt: A “perfect” woman propositioned him when he was eating chips and dip with a friend. And his study of Scripture was the only thing that kept him from betraying his wife for an ecstatic encounter with a stranger.
Women exist in a world where people judge, use, ridicule and ogle our bodies everywhere we go.
Women exist in a world where people judge, use, ridicule and ogle our bodies everywhere we go. One study found between 34% and 65% of 5-year-old girls have ideas and opinions on dieting. And then we get to church and hear, once again, we aren’t enough — we’re merely the consolation prize, the one he settles for instead of the “perfect” woman he is barely able to resist.
Women deserve better than to go to church and hear all that stops our pastors from having sex with total strangers is a Bible memory passage. We’re all for Bible memory, but we’re also for marriage vows, faithfulness and holding Christian men to at least the same moral standard as your average non-Christian husband at your local Applebee’s.
Erupted in anger
That’s why so many Christian women erupted in anger at Pokluda’s sermon. We heard Pokluda, in the kind of breathless, hushed tone often reserved for worship, describing the “perfect” body of this woman, with “everything in the right place.” Instead of church being a place where a woman can feel comfortable in her own skin, the pastor invited men to judge every woman around them on the basis of where her body parts landed.
In frat-boy movies of the ’80s and ’90s, men proved their masculinity by the “notches on the bedposts,” by how many women they’ve slept with. But Christian men are only supposed to have sex with one woman — their wife. One way to prove their manhood without promiscuity is to brag about how they could have slept with many women but chose not to.
Sociologist Sarah Diefendorf notes how Christian men often seem to relish describing their struggles with lusting over women’s bodies, as if such assertions are a way to assure us of their manliness. Maybe this explains why pastors so often give these tone-deaf illustrations. At some level, they think this signals their manhood.
Pastors, you face a choice: You can normalize treating women as whole people made in the image of God, or you can normalize objectification.
Pastors, you face a choice: You can normalize treating women as whole people made in the image of God, or you can normalize objectification. You can imitate how Jesus sat with the Samaritan woman and talked with her, and how Paul praised women as his co-workers, or you can imitate locker room talk.
When you choose the latter, you tell every man in your church: “It’s normal to see women as objects. No one can expect more from you. Your wife is unreasonable by feeling hurt by you wanting other women.” You harm marriages.
That’s what we found in our survey of 20,000 primarily evangelical women for our book The Great Sex Rescue. When women internalize the idea that all men struggle with lust, they find it harder to trust their husbands — even if their husbands did not show any untrustworthy behaviours. And women who attend churches that promulgate these messages also are more likely to be frequently uncomfortable about how their husbands leer at other women in public.
These messages appear to provide tacit approval for inappropriate male behavior. We’re told husbands crave anonymous sex so much that we constantly will live under the threat of his temptation to blow up our marriages, just praying he’s strong enough to withstand, because we can’t expect him to be content with only us. That makes marriage inherently insecure.
Women want to feel safe
Women just want to feel safe – in our marriages and our churches. But, quite frankly, many of us don’t.
In a subsequent survey of women’s experiences in church as teens, which forms the basis of our upcoming book She Deserves Better: Raising Girls to Resist Toxic Teachings about Sex, Self, and Speaking Up, we learned 18.7% of our sample of 7,000 women were sexually harassed in church as minors. Among these, 10.7% of them were sexually harassed by pastors, and another 20.2% by youth pastors or adult volunteers.
In social media polls I’ve conducted, just over 60% of women said they felt more sexually unsafe at church than in the workplace. And Pokluda’s own denomination has given only lip service to the sexual abuse crisis at its doorstep, persistently claiming they’re helpless to act, while somehow managing just this week to disfellowship churches that have female pastors. Perhaps it’s not surprising that irreligious young women now outnumber irreligious young men, reversing a trend that has held for centuries.
Women want to go to church and worship Jesus and feel part of his body, rather than having our own bodies judged.
We want to go to church without having to hear a pastor call his wife “smokin’ hot,” or brag about the hot women who want to have sex with him, or tell us how hard it is for Christian men not to lust.
We’re tired of being framed as the dangerous ones when we’re the ones in danger.
And we’re tired of being framed as the dangerous ones when we’re the ones in danger.
Pokluda certainly is not the only pastor guilty of reinforcing objectification from the pulpit. And he is far from the worst. He is, however, the most recent, and this dust-up reveals much about the frustration women feel in evangelical circles, and the refusal of men in power to confront their complicity in normalizing female objectification.
Instead of heeding the voices of the hundreds of Christian women calling him to a higher standard, Pokluda chose to characterize the entire Twitter outcry as persecution. In a subsequent sermon, he described what God apparently revealed to him when he visited the Asbury Revival.
As he entered the sanctuary, he was thinking about how he was being attacked by “mean and evil” people “antagonistic towards Christianity and pastors.” Pokluda recounts God told him to read Psalm 37: “Do not fret because of those who are evil, or be envious of those who do wrong. For like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.”
Does Pokluda really believe the women and pastors calling him to holiness are going to be struck down by God? Does he really believe being disgusted at a pastor’s public salivation over a woman’s body makes one evil? Are the people calling him to integrity worthy of death?
Pokluda may think he heard God’s voice. But God does not call his precious daughters, who just want to be treated well, evil ones who should die. Pokluda can characterize us as enemies of Christianity if he wants to. But all we are asking is that those who choose to be Christian leaders actually act like Christ.
If that makes us enemies to the men who want to lead us, I think that says more about them than it does about us — and we deserve better.
Sheila Wray Gregoire is the co-author of The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You Believed and How to Recover What God Intended, and co-author of the upcoming book She Deserves Better: Raising Girls to Resist Toxic Teachings on Sex, Self, and Speaking Up. She is the founder of BareMarriage.com.